meeting Whitman

In previous English classes, I have only studied Walt Whitman very topically, a few stanzas here and there, a few famous lines plucked from the wealth of wisdom Whitman saw himself as offering. In class, Professor Z spoke about Whitman’s intention to write a “new American Bible”, a composition so profound it could save the country from the brink of war and disaster. In such a context, it seems like a mockery to treat his work as topically as I have in the past. As a writer, it is difficult not to empathize with the weight of his desire to produce something of significance- to translate into words what one can only feel in one’s own body, to understand, to be understood. If this can be considered the task of the writer, Whitman expanded that task even further by taking it upon himself and his work to not only be understood but accepted to the degree that he might alter the long-held beliefs of his countrymen.

In meeting Whitman, for what I feel is really the first time ever, I approach his work with great expectations, as I believe he would have wanted me to. From my place in history in 2010, I consider Whitman an early modernist, a forerunner of the intellectual revolution that broke society free form the shackles of the past. Like the modernists, Whitman wanted to do away with the bullshit of popular society, that poisoned people with notions of superiority based on class, skin color and religion; he wanted to focus on the real distance between people and how it could be overcome. What he recognized, for better or for worse, was the oneness of humanity- still a revolutionary and incredibly powerful concept in the current age.

When reading Whitman, it is almost as if you have been granted access to his soul, his most secret thoughts laid bare to be dissected and analyzed and interpreted. Was he afraid? How did he feel when his work was not taken seriously? Nothing can crush a sense of oneness with the human race like having your own peers laugh in your face. It gives me great pleasure to grant Whitman the audience he deserves, whether it be in my personal reading time or in class discussion. After all, he was striving to be heard and understood and validated just like one of us… he just wrote a lot more.

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